The characteristics of the five Korean isolates of Japanese encephalitis (JE) virus were compared with those of the already reported JE virus strains from Japan and China using the hemagglutination test and polymerase chain reaction direct sequencing of the JE virus genomes (capsid/premembrane, envelope region). The hemagglutination patterns of all the isolates were distinctly different from the Nakayama-NIH strain. The optimal pH of hemagglutination of all the Korean isolates was 6.6-7.0 and the reaction range was broader than that of the Nakayama-NIH strain. The 198 nucleotide sequences in the capsid/premembrane gene region of the five Korean strains indicated that they were classified into the third genotype group, the JE strains from the countries in the temperate zone including the Nakayama-NIH, JaOArS982, and Beijing-1 strains. Four of the five Korean isolates formed a unique phylogenetic tree within the third genotype group, although the last one was genetically highly related to the Nakayama-NIH strain. The 251 nucleotide sequences in the envelope region of the five isolates were more divergent than the capsid/premembrane region. Four of the five isolates showed a large nucleotide divergency as compared with the JaOArS982 strain (< or = 12.4%), but the last one was similar to the JaOArS982 strain (98% of nucleotide homology). These results suggest the evolutionary divergence of the JE viruses isolated in Korea from the Japanese and Chinese strains and that there may exist at least two antigenically different JE virus strains in Korea.